Lee Scoresby, a young Texan aeronaut, and his dæmon, Hester the rabbit, land their balloon in Novy Odense, a frontier harbor in the North. Lee is all but broke, so he goes into town looking for business. There’s no work for an aeronaut, but there is a lot of trouble waiting for an honorable man. Naturally, Lee and Hester wind up in the middle of it.
It turns out that the Larsen Manganese, a mining company, has allied with Ivan Demitrovich Poliakov, a mayoral candidate, as part of their scheme to control of the North. The company’s guards are throwing their weight around Novy Odense, which disrupts honest trade, while Poliakov incites hate against the bears, including one Iorek Byrnison, which distracts from the Northern takeover. Lee winds up siding with the bears and businessmen, even if it means risking a gunfight against Poliakov and the mining company’s agents.
Philip Pullman’s Once Upon a Time in the North is often described as a children’s book, which makes sense given that it contains illustrations, characters that talk to bears and jackrabbits, and a board game designed by the author. Still, there is a lot of material in this story that surprises me, such as when Lee meets Poliakov’s dim-witted daughter, Olga. Olga is dim but very attractive, which prompts Lee to this mental calculus:
What did it matter if she had the brain of a grape? It wasn’t her brain Lee wanted to hold in his arms. Her body had its own kind of intelligence, just as his did, and their bodies had a great deal to say to each other.
For better or worse, Hester is unimpressed by Lee’s reasoning. In addition to descriptions of Lee’s sexual desire for Olga, I was also surprised by the complexity of the novella’s premise: are children really into stories about corrupt multinational corporations that disrupt local politics in order to seize control of regional resources? And there’s also a fair amount of cursing in the novel — usually between Hester and Lee. At one point she even calls him an ass.
Perhaps Pullman’s willingness to include details and characters like these while still ostensibly writing for children is what distinguishes his fiction. He trusts children to filter whatever they cannot handle from the narrative, though it might also be true that he sees resilience in children. Or, perhaps, he appeals to the inner child in his adult readers. Regardless, the formula seems to work.
Most readers will approach this novella because it is a prequel to the His Dark Materials novels and because it tells the story of when Lee Scoresby met Iorek Byrnison. Once Upon a Time in the North is neither as disturbing nor as rich as Lyra’s novels. In spite of its corporate and political antagonists, this story is simpler than Lyra’s novels. As readers might intuit from the novella’s title, Once Upon a Time in the North is structured like a Western: tensions are introduced, they simmer, and then they boil over. Although this is a good yarn, and its structure works for a novella prequel (prequel novella?), I did wonder whether there might be other better stories from Lee Scoresby’s life before he meets Lyra.
Ultimately, Once Upon a Time in the North is a fun story about an armored bear, a talking rabbit, and an aeronaut. Throw in some charming illustrations and a board game about the North, and you have one of those neat little books that is simply fun to take down from the shelf.